San Francisco is quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic profile gives it more distinctly defined neighborhoods than a city five times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavors of this community—and even its climate—can change within a single block.
Castro Street & Noe Valley
The center of San Francisco's gay community and a landmark for gay culture everywhere, the Castro is full of bars, dance clubs, restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops, located in the commercial area around 18th and Castro Street. There's arguably more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially on weekends. The gleaming neon sign of the Castro Theater greets visitors as they make their way down the street, with its Spanish colonial architecture and various blockbuster and independent film screenings. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes make an appearance at special events (they're really men in nun drag) such as the Castro Street Fair, and take it from us—this is the place to be on Halloween. Trek up Castro to Liberty Street to see exceptional Victorian homes. Over the hill lies Noe Valley and its main shopping strip, 24th Street. Cute and relatively quiet, Noe Valley has enough great restaurants and gourmet food shops to make it sophisticated, but not enough many chromed-up bars and Italian clothing boutiques to make it stuffy.
The greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia—a population of roughly 80,000—live in the approximately 24 square blocks of Chinatown , making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. As you walk around, you'll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this vibrant community. Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown, each year hosting the Autumn Moon Festival Street Fair and the ever popular Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. The neighborhood is also known for its excellent Chinese dishes from freshly-prepared poultry and seafood, to the staple, Dim Sum.
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
Stately Beaux Arts buildings like the War Memorial Opera House and the domed, renovated City Hall are situated near the modern Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Library's graceful Main Branch. The Asian Art Museum is also in the area, housed in the former Main Library building. Nearby Hayes Valley offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for concert-goers, as well as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts.
Cow Hollow & Union Street
The grand, imposing homes of Cow Hollow (so named for its original bovine residents) are nestled against the Presidio where Pacific Heights dives to the Marina. Spectacular views are the norm. Straight, single yuppies pack the Balboa Cafe , Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants on Fillmore and Union Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter the day away in Union Street's many upscale and tasteful boutiques.
Downtown & Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco's bustling and stylish downtown shopping district. Posh department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Macy's ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive stores, boutiques and shopping centers, such as the Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre , lie within a three-block radius of the square. If you've shopped till you've dropped, pick yourself up at an outdoor cafe in tiny Maiden Lane , and restore the soul at one of the many art galleries on Sutter and Geary Streets. This is also the home of San Francisco's modest Theater District.
Financial District & The Embarcadero
"The Wall Street of the West": Bank of America, Charles Schwab, and the Transamerica Corporation (in its landmark, 48-floor Pyramid ) are among the many banks and corporations headquartered here. The Embarcadero Center features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a health club, while Justin Herman Plaza is the site of many New Year's Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building Marketplace , modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.
Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square & Aquatic Park
This area was once the thriving center of San Francisco's fishing industry. Many fishing boats still dock at the Wharf, but Fisherman's Wharf today is more of an extended tourist trap. Pier 39 is a great place to catch a view of the bay thanks to the delightful colony of sea lions. Aquatic Park features a beach, of sorts, and a long pier spiraling out into the Bay. Old sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where several historic ships are docked, along with the Maritime Museum . Ghirardelli Square , a chocolate factory turned shopping and restaurant complex, features some of the city's better dining and views. This area is nice for an evening stroll.
Golden Gate Park
With 1000 acres of gardens, meadows, lakes, golf, archery, and internationally recognized art and science museums, Golden Gate Park offers endless recreational possibilities for visitors and locals. The DeYoung Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden are some of the main attractions of the famous park, drawing millions of visitors each year. At the western edge of the park, Ocean Beach, although unappealing for swimming, attracts hard-core surfers with its rough, frigid and unpredictable waves.
At once, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels more bohemian and less unsavory than the Haight Ashbury to the west. The streets are usually packed with college-age inhabitants who tote guitars and well-worn paperbacks. Ethnic restaurants like Persian Aub Zam Zam , unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores are mushrooming in this neighborhood. The street life is lively on nights and weekends at popular haunts like Nickie's and Toronado .
Nob Hill & Russian Hill
On impossibly steep Nob Hill , California's early industrialists built fabulous mansions that looked down upon the rest of San Francisco. While only the imposing Flood Mansion remains—now the Pacific Union Club—the area's five-star hotels bear the names of other Nob Hill denizens: the Mark Hopkins , the Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel , and the Huntington . Facing Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral , a 3/4 replica of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Adjoining Nob Hill is Russian Hill, where San Francisco's old money has a great view of the Bay. The "Crookedest Street in the World" resides here and snakes down Russian Hill for the 1000 block of Lombard Street . The traffic is generally impossible—walk it!
North Beach & Telegraph Hill
Originally settled by Italians, North Beach became a magnet for Beat Generation writers and poets in the 1950s. City Lights Bookstore and the cafes and shops on upper Grant Avenue still exude Beatnik funk. A new wave of entrepreneurial Italians has brought a sense of Roman style to exciting new restaurants along Columbus Avenue. On Broadway, barkers still pull tourists and sailors into charmingly seedy strip joints. Clapboard sea captains' cottages and mossy flower gardens seem to dangle in space from the cliffs of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower , at 210 feet, commands a stunning panorama from the hilltop. The boardwalk Filbert Steps leads from the Tower down through the Grace Marchand Gardens to Levi's Plaza Park at the base of the hill.
Fillmore Street & Japantown
Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights' commercial spur, features noteworthy restaurants, epicurean food, and antique shops, all attended by a lively trade from young professionals. Fillmore and Geary has become a popular nightlife destination, thanks to John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room and the Fillmore Auditorium . Be advised that the neighborhood gets a bit sketchy to the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki Cinema and neighboring Kabuki Springs & Spa are part of the Japan Center, the commercial heart of Japantown. A sort of miniature Ginza, the Japan Center features a 100-foot pagoda, bonsai gardens, sushi bars and other businesses. Each spring it holds the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
Pacific Heights & Presidio Heights
Stately homes and high-rent apartment buildings line the ridge high above Cow Hollow in old-money Pacific Heights. Genteel, renovated Victorians ring the peaceful Alta Plaza Park . Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features exceptionally palatial residences. Those fortunate enough to live here shop for antiques and dine in quiet refinement on a few understated blocks of nearby Sacramento Street. San Francisco's largest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el , can be found on Arguello Street.
Once an unglamorous stretch of warehouses with a seedy undercurrent, an exciting modern San Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street—SoMa. Conventions, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. Locals can be seen at leisure at the South Park Cafe , Brain Wash (a cafe/performance space/laundromat), or other fashion-forward restaurants and watering holes.
South Beach/China Basin
One of the city's most popular residential areas for young professionals, South Beach arose from a virtual wasteland at the southern end of the Embarcadero and the western edge of SoMa. Apartment complexes and boat marinas squeeze together between the foot of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Giants' waterfront baseball stadium, AT&T Park . Warehouses and factories have either been converted into stylish lofts or are being razed in a swath of development extending down Third Street to the Mission Bay development.
Haight-Ashbury & the Panhandle
This small, but densely concentrated cradle of the hippie movement has tried to retain much of its flower-power, peace and love appeal. While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies may be hard to find, young people, dreadlocked, skinheaded, or skateboard-crazy have continued to come to the Haight to break boundaries. The colorful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are always packed with professional twenty-somethings. The annual Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is quite a scene. Architecture buffs will want to take a look at the regal Victorians on the Panhandle—the grassy, tree-lined strip extends east from Golden Gate Park along Fell and Oak Streets.
The Marina District
Tanned, fit and energetic twenty-somethings run and rollerblade along the Marina Green, a vast expanse of grass fronting the Bay between two yacht harbors. Mountain bikers crowd cafes, restaurants, and brunch hangouts along busy Chestnut Street after Sunday morning rides to Mount Tamalpais. The graceful Palace of Fine Arts houses the Exploratorium , the one-of-a-kind, hands-on science museum—a must-see for those with kids. At the southern end of the Marina Green is Fort Mason Center , a waterside arts and cultural center.
The Mission District
The nexus of Hispanic culture, and a mecca for edgy bohemians, the Mission now houses increasing numbers of young professionals and their sport utility vehicles. Mexican and Central American businesses line teeming Mission Street. Visit popular La Taqueria , and be assured that the wait is worth it. Along the Valencia Corridor, one block to the west, bars, cafes, and restaurants of every description, notably Casanova Lounge , lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia hub. Paxton Gate stands as one of the most unique among the array of shops in this stretch. The neighborhood draws its name from nearby Mission Dolores , founded in 1776. The dolled-up, postcard-perfect Victorians on Dolores Street are worth a look—in the daytime—from adjacent Dolores Park .
14,000 acres of forests and beaches, 75 miles of bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end make this the jewel of the Fort Miley Golden Gate National Recreation Area . The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994; antebellum Fort Point , under the Golden Gate Bridge , is a favorite for cannon enthusiasts, as well as for surfers, sailboarders, and Hitchcock aficionados (it's the site of Kim Novak's attempted suicide in Vertigo).
The Richmond District
Fog-bound and quiet residential streets stretch to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at the ocean, with the occasional Irish pub along the way. Some of the city's best Chinese restaurants are to be found in "Little Chinatown" on Clement Street, and Cyrillic lettering fills store windows around the imposing, gold-domed Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral on outer Geary Boulevard. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin Williams and other celebrities, is next to Lincoln Park, site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and a spectacular golf course.
A quiet and intensely foggy residential district, the principal attractions to the Outer Sunset are the San Francisco Zoo and the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove, where free concerts are held on summer Sundays. As well as being home to the Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens , the Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of shops on Irving Street, near 9th Avenue where students from nearby UCSF Medical School crowd ethnic restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai.
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The recipient of the coveted James Beard cooking award, Chef Gary Danko practices his genius at his eponymous, 75-seat Gary Danko restaurant. Reservations usually have to be booked two months in advance. Luxurious appetizers, flavorful entrees, and decadent desserts are the true crowd-pleasers here. The prix fixe-only menu includes dishes like Lobster Salad with Fennel, Citrus, Avocado and Mustard Tarragon Dressing and Seared Maine Scallops with Black Truffle, Leek and Potato Puree. Indulge in the special Flambeed Pineapple with Macadamia Nuts and Coconut Sherbet, prepared table-side and with gusto. An outstanding wine list featuring hundreds of California and French bottles is available.